Leaving Van Gogh - By Carol Wallace



I HELD VINCENT’S SKULL in my hands yesterday. It was a strange and melancholy moment. As I examined the yellowed cranium, my imagination clothed it with flesh; I could see the strong ridge over his eyebrows and the steep ledges of his cheekbones, which were the foundations of his face.

The doctor in me could not help looking for something else as well. Phrenology is out of fashion now, but I am an old man. When I began my medical training, there were doctors who believed the shape of a skull betrayed or predicted a man’s mental state. What should this skull have told me then? Should I have detected from it that Vincent was mad? Or that he was a genius? Perhaps that he was both?

I had been hoping … Well, it was foolish. I suppose I had been hoping that Vincent would speak to me again. Nonsense, of course. I did not really imagine that a voice would issue from between his few, ruined teeth, but I thought the sight of his skull might prompt a new memory, something I had forgotten—a phrase, a glance, a gesture that would provide me with new insight into his mental predicament.

Of course I could not wait as long as I would have liked for some ghostly trace. We were reinterring the man. It was no time for investigation.

The ceremony was moving but peculiar. At nearly eighty, I often feel that I have done everything in life, but until yesterday I had never re-buried anyone. We would not have had to disturb Vincent’s grave if there had been an empty plot alongside it for Theo’s remains. Now, in a new plot, the modest headstones rise side by side, each engraved plainly with one of the brothers’ names. Theo’s body still lies in Utrecht, but his widow promises to bring it to Auvers when she can, because she feels their fraternal bond should be honored, even in death. Not many widows—certainly not those who had remarried, as Madame van Gogh Grosschalk did—are so self-effacing. I am certain, though, that she is right.

The new grave site is better. It lies on the north side of the cemetery, against the wall. Vincent would have liked this spot, surrounded as it is by the wheat fields he painted with such bravura and devotion. I transplanted some sunflowers from his first grave; they gave poor Theo pleasure and consolation back then. I am glad to think that something I did might have been a source of comfort to that poor man.

We all waited until the gravedigger had shoveled the last handful of earth onto the coffin. It was a warm afternoon; not as hot as that searing July day fifteen years ago when we last buried Vincent, but hot enough for the gravedigger’s task to seem interminable. Yet we stood there, Van Gogh’s survivors if you like, watching the casket vanish beneath the crumbly soil and thinking about him. He told his brother that I was sicker than he, yet there he is, a pile of bones, and here I am, still trying to grasp what he was to me and I to him.

I have known many artists. Vincent was something different. Everyone who knew him well understood this, so I have not been surprised at Theo’s wife’s unremitting efforts to foster his reputation. Of course she does so because she possesses most of his paintings. That is natural. But she must also feel, as I do, that her life was briefly illuminated by the presence of a remarkable person. I have children, but I will have no grandchildren. Marguerite is most emphatically an old maid, and Paul is no family man. If anyone knows my name a hundred years from now, it will be in connection with Vincent van Gogh. His portrait may make me immortal. If it does, I will also be known as the doctor who let him die. Vincent wrote once in a letter that a man who commits suicide turns his friends into murderers. What does that make me?

Many rumors have grown up about his death. So much could not be explained: where the gun had come from, where the gun vanished to, why he shot himself so clumsily. It has been said that the gun was for shooting crows, and that Vincent had borrowed it from Ravoux. It was a rifle, some said, or it was a shotgun, and he tripped over it while trying to shoot rabbits. There is even a tale—rather